Every NHL season has phases. Late October brings us the almost-justifiable-fan-panic phase. Teams’ sample sizes are small, but they’re just big enough that slow starts might feel like something more than slumps. Many of the (great) questions in this Ask Me Anything Mailbag, the first of the 2018-19 season, concern teams and players struggling out of the gate. Let’s do this!
Disneybound Marty (@martin_14) asks…
Is Connor Hellebuyck going to turn into a goalie who struggles with consistency?
Hey Marty. What’s fascinating about your question is…if there was one thing Hellebuyck did better than pretty much any goalie in the NHL last year, it was play consistent hockey. He posted a save percentage of .911 or better every month en route to his runner-up finish in Vezina Trophy voting. I’ve said it before: of all the players I’ve interviewed, Hellebuyck ranks right up there with the most relaxed, confident and poised. I marvel at his calm. I often say I wish I had what he had. That’s how laid back he is. With his size and mental makeup, he strikes me as a goaltender who will have a long and consistent career.
That said, he hasn’t been at his best to start 2018-19, I know. He got beat on a few stoppable shots against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Wednesday night’s big showdown. Last year, he had great protection from his defense, facing one of the league’s lowest concentrations of high-danger chances at about 15 percent in 5-on-5 play, and that trend has actually continued so far at just 19 percent. Theoretically, since the chances coming Hellebuyck’s way aren’t typically wide-open looks, he should start stopping more of them, and that SP will rise north of its current .907 mark. An eight-game sample size is too small to use as a barometer of what to expect from him this year.
Also, a 2.99 goals-against average and .907 SP don’t necessarily mean what they did even a year ago. Scoring is way up, and save percentage has plummeted with goalies wearing the streamlined chest and shoulder pads. Typically, the numbers smooth out over the course of the season, but for now, the league average of 3.09 goals is the highest in 23 years. Goalies’ average SP has also dropped to .909, the lowest in 10 years. So we should be careful judging Hellebuyck’s numbers against his own from last year. He’s been at least league-average good so far, and we should expect him to improve. He did struggle in 2016-17, for sure, but that was the anomaly in his career going back to his prospect days. He was always projected to be a high-end NHL starter, so I believe the good, consistent version of Hellebuyck is the “real” Hellebuyck.
Russell Hartman (@russellhartman1) asks…
What will be the trade that shakes everything up this season?
Hi Russell. The easiest place to look for shakeup trades is, of course, the pending 2019 UFAs, particularly those playing on teams not expected to make the playoffs. While the Ottawa Senators have started better than anyone predicted, they’re a long-shot to sustain that competency, so we’ll likely see Mark Stone and Matt Duchene dominate the trade rumor mills in the new year. Both would be high-impact additions to contender teams, Duchene for his speed and positional versatility, Stone for his hands and superb two-way play on the right wing.
We have to watch the Blue Jackets closely with pending UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, too. Sources close to the situation told me shortly before the season started that, regardless of both players’ reported interest in testing the open market, Columbus wanted to hold them all year to push for a Stanley Cup and perhaps convince them to stay. But Bobrovsky’s struggles and periodic benchings early this season certainly spike the odds of him getting moved.
Still, if we’re talking about a league-altering trade that would shock everyone and really shuffle the NHL’s deck…my pick would be a William Nylander deal. Gun to my head, I still think the Leafs get him signed, but we’re down to just five weeks now before he’s ruled ineligible to play in 2018-19. Any team landing him would significantly boost the speed and skill in its attack. The Minnesota Wild and Carolina Hurricanes stand out as teams that could use another scorer up front and have a surplus of good right-shot defensemen. A Leaf lineup with, say, Mathew Dumba or Justin Faulk added to it would look very different.
I’m not saying I believe deals like those will happen – I don’t – but if we’re talking trades that will significantly impact the league, it would be tough to top one involving the RFA Nylander, who would likely sign a long-term extension with his new team. Still, I’d bet on him wearing blue and white in the weeks to come.
Ville Pennanen (@V__pee) asks…
What’s wrong with St. Louis? First they lost Vladimir Tarasenko to scoreless limbo and now Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn. Are the Blues the graveyard for goal-scorers?
Who knew Tarasenko would long for the “run and gun days of Ken Hitchcock,” eh? The Blues are a true head-scratcher, but it seems every season yields a team like this, one predicted to bust out after a summer of flashy moves. The Dallas Stars added Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal and Ben Bishop last summer and still missed the playoffs, for instance. The pieces don’t always fit together exactly like they’re supposed to on paper.
Per the outstanding Blues beat writer Jeremy Rutherford, the Blues have the third-fewest points in the league, have won once in five home games and have a head coach in Mike Yeo who openly wondered if his job was in jeopardy after the Blues squandered their third 2-0 lead of the season in a Thursday loss to Columbus. Things look grim, no doubt.
It’s still October, though, so in a situation like this I always like to check first if we can rule out luck as the culprit. Tarasenko and Schwartz, both highly accurate shooters in their career, are converting at career-low rates right now – by a mile. That will obviously normalize. Also good news: both players are getting more shots per game than their career averages, so it’s not like they’re failing to put pucks on net. Theoretically, we should see a goal surge from the Blues’ two most important offensive players, while Schenn is scoring at his normal rate of accuracy and getting more pucks on the net than normal.
The Blues’ best forwards, then, are probably not the problem. It’s the supporting cast, which was supposed to be vastly improved for a team that finished 24th in offense last year. The Blues rank 26thin shot attempts generated per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 play. David Perron and Ryan O’Reilly have contributed, but Patrick Maroon and Tyler Bozak have combined for one goal in nine games. Those two and Alexander Steen have four goals total for $12.5 million of cap space.
That said, being a “graveyard for goal-scorers” isn’t even the real problem. The Blues are 14th in goals. They’re 30th in goals allowed at an even four per game. They allow about seven more shot attempts than they generate at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes. Jake Allen, who gets a million chances to prove he can be St. Louis’ No. 1 goalie, is struggling again with an .876 SP. The Blues allow the eighth-most high-danger chances per 60 minutes as well. Last year, they allowed the fourth fewest. They’ve become a far more porous defensive team. That, not the offense, is the real problem. It's a legitimate concern.
Ralph wiggumn (@ralph_wiggumn) asks…
Is Vegas this year’s Ottawa, making Max Pacioretty Matt Duchene-West? What’s wrong with Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus? Favorite X-Man?
Since this is a three-pronged question, you get more of a lightning round of quicker answers, Ralph. I absolutely worry Vegas is this year’s Ottawa, a team rendered overconfident by one year of unexpected success. The Pacioretty trade cost the Golden Knights Nick Suzuki, one of their top three prospects. More worrisome than that deal, however, are the long-term contracts GM George McPhee is tossing around like Halloween candy.
The extension for Pacioretty was one thing, as he’s at least a proven 30-goal threat, but the shiny new deals for Nate Schmidt, Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore involve a lot of projection. Each guy arguably belonged in bridge-contract territory, not lucrative extension territory. If the salary cap stays the same next year, Vegas only has $7.3 million in space with William Karlsson left to sign as an RFA. McPhee is playing a dangerous game blowing all his money for a team that may or may not be able to sustain last year’s effort. It hasn’t so far, but Vegas also does have the league’s lowest PDO, a stat that combines shooting and save percentage to approximate luck. It’s as if the hockey gods are correcting everything they did for Vegas last year.
As for Bobrovsky – there’s some reason to worry. He was bad in the playoffs last year, and he’s struggled to start this year. Like, really struggled. He lapped the field in goals-saved above average last year, whereas he’s second last this year. He probably would be last had Mike Smith not endured an all-out assault from the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday night.
There’s a decent chance Bobrovsky is a distracted man right now. Not only is he without a contract for next year – a factor that affected Ben Bishop a lot in his ugly final season with the Lightning, remember – but the Jackets are turning to Joonas Korpisalo more than normal so far, including their season opener. It almost feels like posturing, an attempt to show Bobrovsky they don’t need him, which can’t help his confidence. Coach John Tortorella said publicly this week that “Bob has not been Bob.” If he doesn’t find a rhythm soon, we could see a mid-season trade situation arise. Korpisalo’s numbers haven’t been great, but he’s won all three of his starts, indicating the team has played better in front of him than it has in front of Bobrovsky. Coincidence or not?
As for the X-Men: I’m a hairy, 5-foot-9 Canadian. I pretty much am Wolverine already. He was my Halloween costume two years ago, and I barely needed any special effects – my real hair and real beard sufficed. Heart-wrenching backstory, healing powers, general angry badassery…he has it all. Easy pick for me.
Jake Lahut (@JakeLahut) asks…
Obviously the discourse around “tanking” for picks has changed drastically over the past few years, but at what point are the Red Wings doing themselves a disservice by being this bad? Basically, just how bad are the Wings?
I actually disagree with you on this one, Jake. Red Wings fans should be absolutely ecstatic with this start to the season. I understand that seeing a stream struggle this mightily is a foreign feeling for Detroit. The Wings haven’t finished last overall since 1985-86. There are 31-year-old Detroit fans out there who have never experienced a real dark age of half-full buildings and embarrassing blowout defeats. The Wings haven’t picked first overall since tabbing Joe Murphy in 1986 and haven’t even picked in the top five since selecting Keith Primeau third overall in 1990. The current state of affairs has to feel like another planet for Hockeytown.
The 25-year playoff streak was a marvellous feat for a proud franchise, with four Stanley Cup wins baked in, but it became a curse in its later years as GM Ken Holland piled on the expensive veteran contracts for the likes of Justin Abdelkader, Frans Nielsen and Darren Helm, helping the team wheeze along on the bubble, no longer good enough to make the playoffs but not bad enough to bottom out and land some franchise-altering stars.
Well, finally, this team is bad enough. It’s as devoid of talent as any roster in the NHL. It’s weak at every position. We should expect this inept start to become an inept year. And that’s great news. The Wings nabbed arguably a top-three talent sixth overall when Filip Zadina fell to them in the 2018 draft, and they’re trending toward having a lot of lottery balls this June, putting them in the mix for a Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko. With the exception of the 2011 Boston Bruins, nine of the past 10 Stanley Cup champions were built on the backs of high first-round picks: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and so on.
When I spoke with Holland near the end of the playoff streak a couple years back, he casually mentioned that the idea of rebuilding was odd to him because he’d never had to do it before. That’s why I preached patience from the fan base. He literally had to learn how to rebuild, having never done it before. Now this team is finally set up to bomb out in the standings. Players and coaches don’t have tanking in their DNA – so the tank is always the GM’s job. He can't control the on-ice effort, but he control the talent pool of personnel the coach has to choose from. And the pickings are slim for Jeff Blashill.